Bill Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy (warning: Terrestrial Energy has a fascinating intro video that plays automatically unless you skip it) has produced a series of posts for the Freakonomics blog hosted by the New York Times. The comments are being moderated – which slows down the conversation, but elevates it to something worth reading.
On Bill’s most recent of the three guest posts, titled The 100-Year Gap in Understanding, he poses a thought provoking comparison of the delay time required between widespread acceptance of the revolutionary energy idea of fission and the acceptance of revolutionary thinking of philosophers like Hobbs, Locke, and Kant. From his point of view, the necessary 100 years are now behind us and it is time to move rapidly forward.
There is a long thread of responses, but I thought it worthwhile to add one more. It is pretty lengthy and may never be approved, so here is a preview:
There are many very interesting and perceptive comments in this thread. There are also legitimate questions about cost and business decision making, wondering why, if nuclear is as good as some of us believe, that it has not taken a more firm root in our economy.
I come at this discussion from a rather unique position – I have been trying to actually sell modern nuclear power systems (first as an idea to investors) for more than 15 years, so I have learned quite a bit about the reasons behind the reluctance and the lack of new construction here in the US over the past 30 years.
Fundamentally, one has to realize that the country and its decision makers in government and big business are most definitely ADDICTED to fossil fuels. They are the lifeblood of the economy and they provide the basis for enormous structures of power and wealth. In our current world, the people who control access to fossil fuels have a huge influence in the way that we all live and even some strong influence in the way that we all think.
One reason that nuclear fission energy has had such a struggle to succeed after some early initial successes – like a reliable power plant operating underwater just 13 years after the basic physical process had been proven – is that it is extremely threatening to the people whose very existence is defined by a continued need to use fossil fuels.
Just suppose that there had not been any organized resistance to nuclear power. What would our world look like today?
I will give you some hints. By the early 1970s the US was completing between 10 and 20 new nuclear plants each year. When utilities stopped ordering plants in 1974, there were more than 200 plants either completed, under construction or on order. If we had simply continued building without increasing the rate, by 2000 there would not have been a need to operate a single coal fired power plant in the US.
We were also building nuclear surface ships of several different sizes, not just aircraft carriers. That process could have continued so that the rest of the surface navy would be fission based instead of burning 10 million barrels of oil per year. (Our ten aircraft carriers and 45 submarines are all nuclear powered and use very little fuel.)
With continued building programs in the Navy, our shipyards, instead of contracting to the point of just being used to maintain existing ships with a couple of orders per year for naval vessels, could have continued expansion and extended their business by supplying nuclear power plants to commercial ships operated by well paid and highly trained US mariners. That effort could have potentially saved the world between 3-6% of our current daily oil consumption. That works out to about 2-4 million barrels of oil per day.
Our Army nuclear power program, with its small reactors capable of being constructed in the most remote areas of the world in just a few months might have continued and expanded into a world wide program to build small plants in remote areas that could be serviced by well trained operators. Fuel would never need to be vulnerable to diversion – it only needs replacing on rare occasions and that could be done with specialized teams. As a former submarine engineer officer, I can tell you that it is easy to envision a sealed system that provides no access to local operators yet provides enormous amounts of emission free power.
The problem with this alternative universe is that it threatened all of the people who mainline oil, coal and gas. Banks, politicians, transporters (one of the biggest anti-nuclear organizations in Australia, for example, was the railroad unions), engineers specializing in fossil power, and international energy companies all hate the idea that there is a power source that is actually cheaper, more reliable and cleaner than the one that they control.
Today, 104 nuclear plants supply the US with more than 800 terawatt-hours of electricity. That is about 30% more than all of the power plants combined supplied to the grid in 1960, several years after the first commercial nuclear power plant started operating. Those plants produce the energy equivalent of more than 4 million barrels of oil per day at a total operating cost – ignoring the nearly paid off initial investments – of about 1.76 cents per kilowatt hour.
That is roughly equivalent to oil costing $10 per barrel. Don’t you think that fossil fuel addicts would work really, really hard to deny the suggestion that shifting our dependence to the “methadone” of nuclear energy would be preferable? After all, the LIKE selling oil at prices in excess of $100 per barrel, coal at prices in excess of $100 per ton, and natural gas at prices in excess of $8 per million BTU.
One more thing – who do you think is pushing wind and solar power, which do not threaten the dominance of fossil fuels? Who makes the windmills and the panels and stands to benefit when unwitting salesmen force us all to subsidize their purchase? (Answer: GE, Siemens, BP, etc. Most are essentially fossil addicts.)